This mad frenzy will be over this weekend, once Donnels hangs 80 finished pieces in a booth in Jazz Fest's contemporary-crafts area. Each piece is a line drawing, created with an Etch A Sketch and then preserved for the ages using spray fixative.
Donnels' creaky, aching joints are courtesy of last night's effort, All Shook Up, a portrait of a young Elvis. Naturally, the name "Elvis" is written in all caps to avoid a perennial Etch A Sketch bane -- the dotted i. Donnels points at the curl in the King's lip and at his starting point, a droopy eyelid. "The eyes and lips make him," says the 34-year-old.
As always, Donnels worked from a paper sketch. This one was created by computer software that transformed an Elvis photo image into a line drawing. The Etch-A-Sketching itself took about an hour and a half, he estimates, a relative breeze compared to his portrait of Bob Marley, which took about five hours because of all those dreadlocks.
Restraint is key, he says, because with only a few more lines, Elvis would look old. That's a downside of the medium, he says. "It makes women and children very, very difficult. Because you need a line to connect the nose to the mouth, but lines age women and children."
Albert Einstein, on the other hand, is fantastic on the little screen. "I love it. His bushy hair, mustache, everything connects," says Donnels. Louis Armstrong is good, too, he says. "Lots of hard lines -- the sides of his cheeks, a nice size nose, and the clean lines of his tuxedo to offset his face." The toughest part is Satchmo's horn, since it often rises with a diagonal line, one of the two toughest Etch A Sketch moves. (The other is the circle.)
Most people think magnets control the dust inside, explains Martin Killgallon, a spokesperson at the Ohio Art Company, which makes the toy. Actually, static electricity holds the aluminum powder to the glass screen. A stylus then etches the powder off the screen as the knobs are turned.
In 1960, the year it was introduced, the Etch A Sketch was hot -- "the Tickle Me Elmo of that year," says Killgallon. The standard-size red frame has always been the best seller, but now -- 200 million screens later -- they also come in other colors and sizes. This past Christmas, a dozen frames made of hand-laid crystal sold at FAO Schwartz for $1,400 a pop.
Donnels and other artists -- called "our ambassadors" by Killgallon -- have the company's absolute blessing to show and sell the screens as their own artwork. At this point, Donnels ranks himself within the top five Etch A Sketch artists in the country. "On angle and framing and idea," he says, "there are five of us doing work at a certain level."
Several years ago, he had no idea about his skill level or anyone else's. He was working as a bellhop in the French Quarter and doodling on his Etch A Sketch during downtime. "A guest came up to the bellstand," he recalls, "and said, 'Wow -- that's just like the guy in Florida.' I realized then that most people couldn't do this." Donnels is now a registered nurse working at East Jefferson General Hospital, where he carries a classic red frame -- his favorite -- to his once-a-week night shift.
Donnels is hoping, before Jazz Fest, to finish portraits of Aaron Neville, James Brown, Fats Domino and a Blue Dog (in a bright blue frame, of course). He already has dozens of vintage New Orleans scenes -- detailed line drawings of Cafe du Monde, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, Preservation Hall, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. He credits his eye for the city to his grandpa, Johnny Donnels, a former art professor and black-and-white photographer who's based in the French Quarter.
The artistic appreciation isn't exactly mutual, says Donnels. "My grandfather couldn't be more bored by the Etch A Sketch," he admits with a grin. "He always told Mom I'd grow out of it." Donnels piles up a few of his newest sketches and walks out the door and onto the front sidewalk.
Outside, a young man homes in on the stack of Etch A Sketches and asks what's going on. Donnels shows him a few drawings. "These are rad," says the younger guy enthusiastically.
Donnels shrugs. You either understand it or you don't, he says.